As I sit in my car waiting for the red light to change, it occurs to me that in some ways we have less freedom than our forefathers had.

For example, I am forced to pay a state agency for license plates for this car even though that shadowy entity paid not a dime toward its purchase.

Then there’s inspection, insurance and taxes I must pay even though the car, supposedly, belongs exclusively to me. Think how perplexed and outraged our ancestors would have been had there been similar requirements for their wagons and oxcarts.

We pay taxes on both sides of the road but unless we live in left-handed places like Great Britain, we must drive only in the right lanes. But our ancestors, like the fabled chicken, could cross to the other side in their wagons any time they took a notion.

And the list of such legal requirements goes on. Seat belts, size requirements and placement for children’s car seats, speed limits and school zones, proper lights, and of course stop signs and red lights. And all this applies only to automobiles.

Outside our cars we must comply with a labyrinth of laws and rules about nearly every aspect of our lives. Think of multiple tax levels, compulsory school attendance and inoculations; required Social Security numbers and birth certificates; licenses and fees for nearly everything imaginable, ordinances about garbage pickup and prohibitions against trash burning, overgrown lawns, free-roaming pets and deed restrictions about what we can and cannot build on our property. Even dying is a complicated legal matter.

I read some time back that the Chinese authorities have outlawed reincarnation. It’s expensive to be here now and — in China at least — illegal to come back.

I can hear you reminding me that laws, taxes, prohibitions, ordinances and legalities are necessary in order to have an orderly and humane society.

True, I grant you, but how much is too much? Every year councils, legislators, congresses and agencies from Walla Walla to Washington enact more laws and regulations for us to obey.

There is a compulsions in officials, elected or appointed, to fix things, broken or not, and to pass ordinances because — well because that’s what we elect them to do.

Taking a broader view, I also hear you proudly reminding me that our modern democracies have greatly expanded our rights. And again you are right.

Our modern democratic governments are immensely more powerful and efficient than the puny monarchies of earlier centuries. When Louis XVI of France boasted, “I am the State,” he was essentially telling the truth. The State didn’t amount to very much else in those simple times.

I am simple-minded about politics, but tell me, isn’t there a difference between rights and freedoms? It bothers me that a constitutional government can grant us rights because it means that we don’t possess them already.

When a government fails — and don’t they all fail sooner or later? — our rights vanish with them. Besides, if they can give with one hand, can’t they take back with the other? And does it seem to you that the more rights we win the more freedom we lose?

At least one thing seems clear — neither our rights nor our freedoms are real unless we are brave enough to activate them.

Fearful folks are never free, and we have only the freedoms and rights we dare to exercise. We say we have freedom of speech, for example, but aren’t most of us too timid to say what we really think, especially in polite — make that timid — society? And probably a good thing too.

What a jungle society would be if we spoke as bravely in public as we do in private. One of the first things we learn as children is what we can and cannot say.

The long hand of the law goes only so far in its punishment; mom or dad’s hand goes much farther.

But I see the light has changed and I must drive on. There also are laws, you know, against blocking intersections.

Harold Raley is professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Contact him at

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